The recent mystery illness in Cambodia that was killing young children and making many more very ill was a mystery to virus and bacteria researchers around the world. They theorized new or mutated strains of known pathegens were the culprit, but little progress was being made on finding the source of the illness. It took several doctors along with CNN’s medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, to step back from the microscopes for a larger view of the problem. They noted that whenever steriods were administered to the sick children, their conditions worsened, with many of the children dying. The correlation seemed obvious. A bold decision was made to withhold treatment using steriods (which suppressed the immune system), the children began to improve, and death rates dropped.
As society clamors for more professionals with “domain expertise,” an article in the Harvard Business Review by Vikram Mansharamani issues a warning that “the future may belong to the generalist.” The author claims that the oversupply of niche experts has left us with professionals who fail to see the big picture or how several smaller pictures work together. The narrow niche focus is seen mostly in finance, law, medicine, and academia and is perceived as a hindrance to a highly integrated global economy where seemingly disparate developments can echo in surprisingly novel ways. Zooming out for a wider perspective helps determine developing connections or the potential for the unique combinations. Mansharamani cites how efficient-market proponents like Alan Greenspan and others were so focused on the hypothesis before 2008 that they missed the pre-recession credit bubble. Evidently, laser-tuned expertise can create a myopic view that blinds one to developments that may demand an adjustment in perspective, based on a study of 284 professional forecasters whose predictions were more accurate outside their specialized field of expertise than within it.
Mansharamani concludes that forward-looking companies are starting to encourage employees to obtain “a diversity of geographic and functional experiences” for an environment that demands breadth of knowledge more so than depth of knowledge. As I detail in Confessions of a Hiring Manager Rev. 2.0 (Second Edition), workers in all professions and fields must be able to understand how day-to-day skillsets contribute toward core competencies (we all have more than one core competency). Several core competencies contribute to a functional expertise that can lead to competitive advantages not only for the individual, but for the company as well. Competitive advantages can also create for a company a market dominance when sustained over time.
While domain expertise contributes to the solutions of many problems and answers to many questions, the ability to pull back and question assumptions–and look for the other right answers oftentimes is the more prudent path to pursue.